Over the years, Heidi and I have gone through quite an evolution in our eating habits. When we met, we were both pretty typical Standard American Diet-type eaters. We loved fast food, Chinese take-out, pizza, and bar food. Oh, and Italian. Especially Italian. And we both have a sweet tooth, so there was a lot of candy and desserts going on.
By the time we settled into life in Phoenix about 10 years ago, we realized we were both getting kinda chunky. It bothered us — we’re both vain. And we didn’t feel that great, either. So one of the first sets of changes we worked on was to reduce the overall amount of sugar we were taking in. Hell no, we didn’t give up dessert! We gave up soda. First the sugary kind (well, the high-fructose corn syrup kind) and eventually even diet soda too. Lets be honest: diet soda sucks ass anyway. I’d rather just drink coffee, tea, and water. I also made an effort to stop eating the ever-present candy in the office.
This helped a lot with a more consistent energy level, reducing sugar crashes. Well, except for our post-dinner dessert, but we always enjoyed that crash.
Getting started with thinking about diet in terms of limiting options always turns into the main limit that most Americans contemplate: meat. Almost anyone who thinks about making a dietary change probably contemplates at one point or another whether some flavor of vegetarianism is worth a shot, even if they’d never dare try it.
The Vegetarian/Vegan Experiment
I was a sort-of vegetarian during my childhood and adolescence, due more to a weird psychological aversion to meat than anything. All I really ate was refined carbs, in fact mostly just pasta. In my 20s, I got over it and started to relish steaks, burgers, chicken, you name it. The thing is, I mostly ate poorer bar/restaurant and take-out meat options. And I kind of knew during all of my 20s that there was something suboptimal about the combination of that shady meat with the continuation of my carbohydrate addiction.
The most recent in a chain of charismatic vegans that have popped into my life convinced me around 2009 to try eliminating meat from my diet. Heidi got on board and we eliminated everything but eggs for a while. Eventually I ditched eggs too and even went full vegan for 3 of the overall 6 months that this vegetarian phase lasted. The thing is, I was still eating carbs. Tons of carbs. And now lots of vegetables on top of those carbs: salads, sautéed vegetables, you name it.
All it really got me was bloated and tired, honestly. A diet change can always feel good initially. Likely because the shift in nutritional content gets the body excited about something it might not have experienced before. But this one was just bad. About 3 months into vegan eating, Heidi was still occasionally cooking her eggs for breakfast and I said “fuck it, gimme some of those!” and that was that. The best thing we did here was to develop appreciation for the idea of salads as a meal.
Eating Clean, Wheat Overdose
We continued a trend of getting away from fast food and skankier chain restaurant offerings into cooking more and more of our food. We got really into “eating clean.” This impossibly generic-sounding phrase meant we cooked a lot of Tosca Reno recipes out of her various Eat Clean cookbooks and stuff from Clean Eating magazine. The trend was towards more whole food sources. And more and more of it cooked from scratch by us — which really meant Heidi, but I learned to be a decent sous chef.
Through all these years, we were always able to say: “I feel better now than I ever have before.” We knew how to shop at the fancy grocery stores by now. Cashiers at Trader Joes and Whole Foods knew us well enough to continue conversations from last time. Life was good. We were learning and growing.
Grains continued to be a prominent feature. At some point, we decided that if we were going to have pizza, we were going to make our own. On whole wheat crusts. After all, whole grains are awesome and healthy, right? I had discovered craft beer somewhere along the way too and, by the time we moved back to Pittsburgh in 2011, was even brewing my own. First from liquid malt extracts, then from cracked whole grains. It was a fucking wheat party in our house.
At some point we really overdid it. Heidi, who I’d gotten on the beer bandwagon, complained constantly of bloating and gut pains. She quit beer. Then we both tried to go a few weeks without drinking at all and had to admit we felt really amazing without it. Uh oh. We also mostly eliminated wheat and grains from our cooking for a time and felt double awesome. Shit!
Cleanse, Paleo, Primal
Heidi visited a chiropractor sometime in maybe 2012 and came back with a flyer for a cleanse he suggested. It called for eliminating a bunch of stuff: sugar, dairy, alcohol, shellfish, and pork. Sugar, we’d already taken care of, we’d just skip desserts for a while. Dairy? Ok, so we both loved cheese but we could skip it for a while. Alcohol? Well, we’d just proven to ourselves that we felt better pausing on that front, so check. Shellfish? Had already become a rare luxury type food, no prob. Pork? Well that one was and is just weird: probably a biblical thing, based on other flyers this guy handed and mailed out. But sure, we could take a break from bacon.
We decided to cross-reference this cleanse with the idea of giving up wheat. A few weeks in, and holy shit! We sloughed off quite a bit of weight, had zero bloating issues, and were high-fiving each other over how nice it felt to exercise and do just about anything.
We realized we had basically stumbled into eating “paleo,” the loose dietary approach that posits that the best way to eat is to emulate the diets of our pre-agricultural ancestors. Queue us loading up on paleo-type books: Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution and The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson. I got addicted to reading Mark’s blog, which I still do daily. We cross-referenced these materials and staged lots of mini-experiments, coming out squarely “primal” in our eating preference: primal is like paleo, but informed by science and personal experimentation rather than strictly based around imaginary caveman rules. Pork and dairy came back with a vengeance. As for alcohol, we massaged our taste towards lighter and cleaner options: simple mixed drinks without sugar, red wine.
Giving up beer was fucking hard. I still miss the taste. Every so often I indulge it, though, and the heavy feeling that comes along for the ride with a good pint of hoppy IPA is just not worth it to me anymore.
I almost didn’t mention our RV lifestyle in this entire post, but it was bound to come up. We took our primal-style of cooking and eating on the road with us: cast iron skillets, jars of coconut oil, and all. Our pantry looks like a scaled-down selection from a hippie food co-op store. We also dedicated a cabinet in the RV to the scaled-down contents of our liquor bar.
RVing is stressful. There’s no way around it; moving your house and relocating every few weeks, the constant change, just takes a toll. And that kind of stress leads to cravings of comfort, which we so far have addressed primarily through food, sweets and drinks. Heidi became an expert paleo-friendly dessert maker. There is not a treat involving coconut sugar, tapioca, almond flour, or arrowroot that we haven’t tried. We got re-addicted to french fries, making “healthy” fries by baking them in duck fat in our convection oven. They are goddamned delicious.
And in RV campgrounds, it’s always 5 o’clock. Drinking becomes pervasive when you’re constantly exposed to people who are out weekend camping or vacationing and having a good time. The problem is, for us this is our entire life and it became really easy to just find ourselves consuming alcohol on the regular. Not beer anymore, but wine and simpler non-sweetened cocktails.
This section sounds awesome, right? We basically drive a mobile version of our favorite gastropub-type restaurants around the country, just for our own enjoyment. Well, it comes with a dark side: even if you use primo ingredients and stay up on your exercise, eating/drinking habits like this take a toll. There is still insidious weight gain and inconsistency in energy levels. You don’t get to have your primal cake and eat it too, at least not all the time.
By the time autumn came around this year, we realized we needed yet another reset.
Next Stop: Ketosis
Ketogenic eating can be seen as a kind of resurrection of the old Atkins ultra-low-carb thing. The idea is to eat higher amounts of dietary fat, medium amounts of protein, and very little carbohydrate. Once your body adjusts to its new intake, it switches gears from running primarily off of glucose to running off of fat. The diet gets its name from ketones, which are the little energy molecules your liver starts to produce once you become fat-adapted. The research continues to show mostly pros: quicker reduction in body fat, consistent energy, low inflammation, higher satiety. And few/trivial cons: a few days of initial low energy, maybe bad breath or off-smelling urine.
The idea of keto isn’t new to us; we came across it in a few diet books we read and we even tried variations on it, but never for very long. Until recently, the recipes and approaches floating around online and in books just weren’t particularly appealing: eat a little piece of meat and some bland veggie on the side and dump a bunch of MCT oil over everything. It was like eating for people who didn’t enjoy the act of eating, but just wanted to get it over with in the name of looking ripped.
Well it’s timely that keto is trending up and even some of our favorite authors like Mark Sisson have hopped on board. We inhaled his new book, The Keto Reset Diet, and immediately started putting his recommended approaches in place. Armed with all our previous knowledge of how to cook and eat in a primal-friendly way, it’s been very easy to do, just with renewed emphasis on lower-carb vegetable offerings over starches and starchy vegetables. All our kicking and screaming over not wanting to fully give up sugar over the years has actually been really easy to get over. Because this way of eating is just really satiating. The only negative so far was an initial few days where we both felt a little energy-drained and dehydrated.
We’re just a few weeks in and one of those weeks involved a long visit with family, which meant that, yes, we threw down some alcohol (but just wine or liquor + sparkling water “cocktails”). But we can tell that this is more than just a cleanse or temporary dietary restriction we’ve embarked upon. Our moods and energy have leveled out. During exercise, it’s as if we can feel fat dissolving off our bodies but we don’t really run out of gas.
Keeping in mind that dietary shifts can always feel wonderful, I’m going to hold back from the “holy shit ketosis is amazing everybody should be doing this” kind of hysteria that I’d be tempted to fall into right now. But this one rocks so far. Stay tuned for updates!